I always thought the three Rs were stupid. Only one of them starts with an R, the words don’t rhyme, and, as alliteration goes, it’s pretty weak.
My grandmother was big on the axiom though. Born in 1925, Opal Hogan felt the three Rs were the backbone of a good education, and she would let you know it anytime school came up. And the truth is, the three Rs probably were good for her. After serving as a nurse in the second World War, she went to work for General Electric. She retired after 40 years on the line with a great pension in an era when that was still possible. She didn’t need logical reasoning or complex problem solving skills to make light bulbs or work for the union — she needed to read, write, and do basic math.
Today, though, her GE factory is a parking lot.
Most scholars attribute the origin of the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) to a 1795 speech given by Sir William Curtis, an English businessman and politician, which means that those who insist that schools focus on teaching the three Rs are advocating that we should prepare students for the future of work by following the advice of an 18th century English lord.
Fun aside: Curtis’s biographer, Henry Morse Stephens, described him as, “a pitiably bad speaker, very badly educated, and the constant butt of all the Whig wits,” and yet this 225-year-old speech still shapes what many Americans think of as quality schooling.
While some may see the three Rs as the foundation of a good education, broad shifts in economies around the world are making this philosophy increasingly obsolete. The result: much of 21st century schooling is languishing in an outdated paradigm in desperate need of a revolution, and, if it does not evolve, the system will be guilty of dooming these students to the impending jobocalypse.
Revolutions in the World of Work
There is no economic rule that says a society must provide jobs for its citizens. In fact, in a world where companies are trying everything to maximize profits, they often find that trimming employees is the quickest way to do just that. If a corporation can replace a human who needs health care, retirement benefits, breaks, and days off with a robot or some type of artificial intelligence that never calls in sick and needs none of these things, they, of course, will.
It’s already happening.
While fears of automation have been around for decades, we have reached the point where technology can realistically replace not just lower skill positions like fast food workers and truck drivers, but also accountants, science and tech workers, lawyers, and even financial analysts.
In fact, “According to a recent report by Deloitte, more than 100,000 jobs in the legal sector have a high chance of being automated in the next 20 years.” Anything rote or repetitive can and will be replaced. Content knowledge that was once a mark of intelligence and pride means little in the face of search engines.
Here’s a frightening data point: Until very recently, Goldman Sachs employed 600 highly paid U.S. cash equities traders. Today there are two. These were skilled, educated employees who all learned to read, write, and do math – it’s just that a piece of software can do all of that more efficiently and for far less money. In an interview with PBS News, Vivek Wadhwa, author of The Driver in the Driverless Car flatly stated, “I see millions of jobs in every industry being wiped out.”
Fortunately, every time this kind of radical shift has happened in the past, novel opportunities arose for those willing to embrace new training and create new markets. Those new jobs just require different skill sets and a more adaptive and expansive educational methodology. When cars began to replace horse drawn carriages, industries around the world were displaced. Cartwrights and buggy whip manufacturers lost their jobs because their products were no longer required. People learned new skills, adapted for the industrial age, and education evolved to prepare students for the repetitive tasks that era required.
But we are clearly no longer living in the industrial age. The time has come to redesign school for the information age.
How Schools Might Help
In all of nature, the winners are those who can adapt and evolve to the demands of the moment, which is why we must redesign school to meet the demands of our time. To do this, we will need to rethink exactly what it means to be smart in the information age.
Over and over research confirms that social emotional intelligence and creativity are skill sets that will increasingly be in demand, which is why many educational leaders advocate replacing the three Rs with the four Cs (Communication, Creativity, Critical Thought and Collaboration).
The four Cs are front of mind for the design team working on the academic program for The Mastery School of Hawken. Real world problem solving, when done well, is deeply powerful and effective at eliciting a student’s collaborative and communication skills. Moreover, students must learn to think critically and creatively when they’re immersed in the teaching methods that Doris Korda and the Korda Institute for Teaching have developed.
The demand for these dynamic skills is snowballing, and the four Cs skills are unlikely to be replaceable by robots or artificial intelligence any time in the foreseeable future. While an artificial intelligence can be programed to scan for market trends and trade equities, it cannot help a company in the midst of a public relations crisis. It cannot plan a wedding, charity event, or advertise and bring a new product to market.
We need a new generation of people with advanced problem solving abilities who can communicate and work in teams to create new solutions even our smartest computers could never imagine. It is our responsibility as educators to rethink the way we do our work to prepare students so they can avoid the jobocalypse and thrive in our fundamentally changed world.
What the businessman and author Alvin Toffler famously warned about the next generations applies to us teachers as well: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
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